Dr. Valerie Kemp: The Dad Whisperer–”What’s Your Plan?”
Valerie Kemp unexpectedly walked into my office asking for a few minutes of my time. Neatly groomed in a blue suit, and a determined smile, she diverted my attention from my usual tasks. She described herself as a doctoral candidate in our university looking for a dissertation chair. She wondered if I would consider reading her thesis. As she spoke, she produced the proposal from her briefcase. I smiled and asked her to tell me in her own words what fields of study interested her. While the details of what followed are blurred in my mind, I clearly recall her sheer determination. She earned my attention, so I inquired. “What motivates you?” I asked. “Where do you get your drive?”
Without hesitation, she responded, “My dad’s voice followed me throughout my life, whispering in my ear, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ ‘What are your interests?’ ‘What’s your plan?’”
It was clear that Valerie Kemp had full confidence in her plan to earn her doctoral degree and to become a leader in the field of education with a focus on social equity. This would be a culmination of a succession goals achieved . . . with a continual voice in her ear; a voice that propelled her forward even when she drew her first breath, fighting for her life.
They named her Valerie: strong and valiant, knowing that their two pound newborn would need these qualities to survive her premature birth. The doctor in the New York City hospital said to prepare for the worse, but he didn’t know her dad was already whispering her name in his baby’s ears. Valerie must have heard him then as she did throughout her life. This is her story:
“I recall family gatherings in South Carolina where all the cousins would play together. Dad would come into our play area and ask the kids questions about life. Dad had a soft-spoken way of making us think, even when we’d rather play. He’d ask, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ ‘What is your plan?’ When one of my cousins expressed an interest in a particular area, my dad would feign ignorance and say, ‘I don’t think I know anything about that . . tell me more.’
Through the years, this became a steady routine; I didn’t always like it either. With each new step forward , there was my dad, whispering in my ear, ‘What’s next?’ ‘What’s your next plan?’ It felt as though anything I accomplished was never enough. Even when I got my masters’ degree, he began whispering, ‘When will you get your doctorate?’
Somewhere along the way, I heard a new voice whispering in my ear; a voice that persistently echoed my dad’s. My first job in business after college was not as satisfying as I had hoped. I was getting passed up for advancement even though I was getting great evaluations. ‘What’s your plan?’ reverberated throughout my brain and I recognized this new voice as my own. ‘What do you want to do?’ I set out a new plan that led me into the field of education. Each new step opened a door to the next.
After marriage to a wonderful man that produced two daughters, I often watched my dad resume his role as The Whisperer with his grandchildren. My heart beamed with love for this gentle but steadfast man who had a special way of steering me foreword. From the living room, I overheard a very familiar discussion. I heard the soft-spoken voice pose a question to my girls. Then I heard my older daughter reply ‘I want to study meteorology.’
And that very familiar voice mused, ‘Hmmmm, I don’t know anything about that subject. Tell me more. What’s your plan?’